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Sept. 11, 2007 

The billion-dollar question for the art world is whether the looming economic slowdown will affect prices for fine art. The curious got a chance to draw their own conclusions when Christie’s New York held its day-long "First Open" sale on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2007. The twice-yearly sale, designed to lure newer collectors with more sprightly offerings, is widely thought of as an indicator of what is to come at the all-important fall auctions -- though uncertain times have pundits debating even this.

The sale totaled $12,169,520, with 254 of 333 lots finding buyers, or 76 percent. The total sum was below the house’s presale high estimate of $12.6 million, which would seem to be a bit of a setback, though the house put a good face on things and declared the sale to have "performed superbly."

Christie’s "First Open" sale of a year ago totaled $8,435,000, with 219 of 284 lots selling, or 77 percent. So by comparison, the sale grew in size by 50 lots, with about the same percentage sold (and higher buyer’s premiums). The average price of a sold lot rose from $38,500 in 2006 to $47,900 in 2007. The overall sale total increased by almost 50 percent. Do these numbers seem to add up to an art-market slow-down to you?

Still, Lindsay Pollock, working the art beat for Bloomberg, said she detected a "whiff of caution" in the room. The morning session of the auction was rather sparsely attended, though in the afternoon the salesroom was crowded.

Market uncertainties are demonstrated by the top lot, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s untitled 1982 acrylic and oil stick on canvas, featuring a skull-like face with a crown on a turbulent background of blues, whites and burgundies. With a presale estimate of $1,200,000-$1,800,000, the painting ultimately sold for $1,160,000, presumably close to its undisclosed reserve. Still, $1,000,000-plus is a good price for a work that some observers thought marginal and haphazard.

Of course, Basquiat’s market may not be indicative of art prices overall, since his work is unusually popular (Basquiat’s auction record, $14,600,000, was set just last May at Sotheby’s in May).

The second-highest price in the sale was paid for Louise Nevelson’s Dawn’s Presence Two (1969), a construction of white-painted wood spires that sold for $552,000, handily topping its presale high estimate of $200,000. The work was being sold by the Houston-based oilfield services provider Schlumberger Ltd., and was reported to be headed for Europe. The price set a new auction record for Nevelson.

The sale arguably represented something of a "flight to quality," with "demand focused on strong examples and perceived bargains," in Pollock’s words. Other top lots included Alice Neel’s Portrait of a woman with bright red lipstick in a red blouse (1943-46), which sold for $444,000 (est. $50,000-$70,000), a new auction record for the artist and Morris Louis’ long (78.7 x 14.5 in.) stripe painting, Number 29 (1962), which went for $420,000 (est. $250,000-$350,000).

And somebody seems to think Louise Bourgeois prices are due to rise. Her Femme Maison from 1947, an ink and gouache of a building with legs that carried a presale estimate of $20,000-$30,000 -- a reasonable price for a work on paper -- ended up selling for $360,000 to an anonymous buyer.

A good portion of the buy-ins came in the first half of the sale, and many of them were newer works from the late ‘90s or early 2000s. Most carried presale estimates below $10,000 -- but buyers also passed on Jenny Saville’s Closed Contact #10 (1995-96) (est. $20,000-$30,000), Kevin Appel’s Woods -- South View (2001) (est. $25,000-$35,000), Franz West’s Partitur dieser Ausstellung (est. $80,000-$120,000) and an untitled 1975 abstraction by Zao Wou-Ki (est. $150,000-$200,000), among others.

What does it all mean? Despite predictions that a market correction is in store, the auction crowd seemed deaf to tis Cassandra song: "This is not a sign of anything, this is second-tier material," art adviser Lauren Levin Bender told Bloomberg. "I knew it wasn’t going to be a full bustling room. It’s par for the course."

Josh Baer, publisher of the Baer Faxt art-market newsletter, was even more sanguine. "Most of the art press is writing about the sky falling," he wrote, "but the art business is very strong. Demand is strong."

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